The Tiger-Phil grouping is getting all the attention, but history says neither man will win
SAN DIEGO — Give a shout if you predicted Angel Cabrera would win the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont, or if you just knew Geoff Ogilvy would prevail at Winged Foot in '06.
How about Michael Campbell at Pinehurst in '05? Did anybody have money on the man from New Zealand with the unusual golf shirts?
Cue the sound of crickets.
"The U.S. Open doesn't play favorites," said Todd Hamilton, no favorite himself when he won the 2004 British Open. "You've got to play well, but you need some breaks."
Phil and Tiger are megawatt superstars, but the U.S. Open doesn't care.
In 17 attempts at the year's second major, Mickelson has never won, finishing solo second or T2 four times. His most recent near miss, at Winged Foot in '06, remains our most lasting image of Lefty at the Open: aghast, embarrassed and deflated.
Woods has two wins in 13 starts, which would be great for anyone else but is his worst record in any of the four majors. He hasn't prevailed since 2002 at Bethpage Black, not coincidentally the end of the era in which he knew exactly where his drives were landing.
So Phil and Tiger are a combined 2 for 30, which means there's a 6.66% chance one of them will be hoisting the trophy Sunday. And that might be overly optimistic. Woods is coming off surgery on his left knee and hasn't competed since the Masters two months ago, and Mickelson will be carrying the hopes of all of San Diego on his shoulders.
But wait: Adam Scott, the third member of the much-hyped threesome that will tee off at 8:06 a.m. local time Thursday, has missed the cut four times in six U.S. Open starts. He's never finished in the top 20. So the group is a combined 2 for 36.
Mathematically, the odds are better that the champion will emerge from the group right behind Mickelson/Scott/Woods, the 8:17 threesome of Rich Beem (0 wins in 6 starts), Steve Flesch (0 for 9) and Lee Janzen (2 for 18), who are a combined 2 for 33.
These are of course silly, arbitrary numbers, but the Open gives us silly, arbitrary results.
Jack Fleck (1955), Andy North (1978, 1985), Scott Simpson (1987) and Janzen (1993, 1998) are just a handful of the lesser-known players who have plodded along for four days and avoided disaster to win our national championship. That's how you win the U.S. Open: quietly, with an absence of flash photography and flashy play.
That doesn't exactly describe the top two players in the world. Woods hit fewer than half the fairways off the tee but easily won this year's Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines. It's unlikely he'd be able to do the same this week, given the USGA's fondness for wrist-breaking rough.
(The rough is graduated this year, a new wrinkle for the USGA's Open setups. Hamilton says the first two gradations off the fairway are playable, the second two not so much.)
Mickelson isn't exactly a paragon of accuracy off the tee, either. After he made a total mess of the 72nd hole to lose spectacularly at Winged Foot in '06, he said someone was looking down on him and thinking: No one should be able to drive it this bad and win.
Golf is still golf, no matter how big your endorsement portfolio. It's a game best played quietly, without upsetting the game's golden mantra, fairways and greens.
With so much emphasis on Mickelson, Scott and Woods, there's never been a better week for Jerry Kelly (7:55 a.m. Thursday), Carl Pettersson (8:39 a.m.) or some other overlooked player to make a stealthy play for the trophy.
Here's how it happens:
Tom Watson inspired delirium at the '87 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club, the San Francisco course that was the site of Fleck's shocker in '55. Watson, the old Stanford alum, was the local favorite and looked like he was going to win, just as he had at Pebble Beach in 1982. It was a story everybody could feel great about, only it never happened.
Watson led by one through 13 holes on Sunday, but then it all went wrong. Scott Simpson, playing ahead of him, made three straight birdies on Nos. 14-16. He got up and down out of a bunker on 17 and held on for a par at the last to post three-under 277.
Watson's 45-foot birdie putt just missed on 18, meaning the soft-spoken guy with the bushy mustache had prevailed. Who was he? Nobody knew. In the crowd it felt like Bruce Springsteen had called in sick and been replaced by Yanni, and we filed off the course and into the shuttle buses thinking of what might have been.
That's the U.S. Open for you.